How Do We Know Africa Has a History?
It is important to ask the question of how we know about history. Obviously, we cannot go back in time to observe and ask questions about the lives of people who are no longer alive. Yet people have left clues and records behind that historians can use to learn about what the past might have been like. This module will examine some of the tools that historians use to find and interpret these clues about and records of the past. It is important to remember that historians are always finding more clues and records, and each historian will have his/her own unique interpretation of the past. This creates a dynamic dialogue amongst historians as to what really happened in history, which is always being revised and reinterpreted. Yet there are some basic tools that can be used in this investigation to lead them along the way in understanding changes that have occurred over time for a particular place or people.
It is important to note that each historian has his/her own perspective and biases that will be brought to his/her analysis of history. As you continue with this exercise, you will be asked to think about how your own perspective differs, not only from other students in the room, but also from people in another time or another culture.
Imagine you are being sent to particular region in Africa to learn about its history. Let’s take Jos, Nigeria as an example. Jos is today a large city in Nigeria, located in the center of the country. Upon arriving in Jos, how would you start to learn about its history? What historical tools and strategies might you use to learn about the past? Take a few minutes to list as many as you can think of, then share your ideas with your classmates.
Although the following is not a complete, comprehensive list of historical tools, it highlights four major areas of analysis that tell historians something about the past. It also gives an example for each of these, describing how they might be used in the example of Jos, Nigeria. Compare our list with your own. Did you come up with any different ideas? What were they? Any of the same ideas? What were they?
1. Written sources: A wealth of literature has been written about Nigeria. Although much of what we read has been written recently in European languages, there are many writings which date back further and use indigenous African languages and Arabic. Historians read these writings to learn about the history of a region. An example that would be useful to learning about the history of northern Nigeria in the 16th century CE is Imam Ibn Furtuwa’s writing on the wars of the Mai of Bornu, Idris Alaoma.
2. Oral sources: Even amongst people who have not written down their history, often a rich oral history has been passed from generation to generation. An example of a historian who drew heavily on oral traditions of West Africa, including north-central Nigeria, was A. Hampate Ba who wrote the History of the Fulani Empire of Macina in the Eighteenth Century. Like him, other historians have talked to Nigerians about their oral history to learn about the past.
3. Material culture and artifacts: Archeologists and historians learn a great deal about the way people lived by studying remains of their towns, villages, houses, tools, household items, art, musical instruments, etc. These remains can help historians understand what the people in a place produced and traded, how they organized themselves, and even some things about their beliefs. Because of artifacts found in the region around Jos, historians have come to know about what is now called Nok culture. Nok culture refers to a group of people inhabiting central Nigeria from approximately 900 BCE to 200 CE. Remains that have been found from this time period include terracotta figurines, iron tools, and stone tools. From these remains, archeologists and historians have interpreted such things as the dates people were living in this region, the extent to which they had contact with the people around them, and some of the foods and tools that the people used on a regular basis.
4. Study of language: Studying the language(s) of a place and the relationship of that language(s) to others around it can help historians know something about the history of a group of language speakers. For example, linguists have found relationships between languages spoken in Nigeria and many languages spoken in central and southern Africa. This large group of related languages is often called the Niger-Congo (or “Bantu”) languages. These languages were also discussed in Module 6: African Geography. Because of this relationship in language, many historians have suggested that a large migration took place from the region of present day Nigeria to central and southern Africa around 1000 BCE.
In sharing with your classmates some of the ways you would learn about history in Jos, Nigeria, you have probably noticed that everyone’s ideas and approaches are a little bit different. Do you think that if each of you actually carried out your plan for learning about Jos history you would all come up with exactly the same thing? Why or why not?
Go on to Activity Two or select from the other activities in this module:
- Activity One: How Do We Know Africa has a History?
- Activity Two: The Great Egyptian Civilization
- Activity Three: The Great West African Kingdoms
- Activity Four: The Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe
- Activity Five: Bringing it all Together